French New Wave

The 400 Blows [Les Quatre Cents Coups]

The 400 Blows, François Truffaut (1959) [99 minutes]

Before working as a director, François Truffaut was a rebellious, brilliant film critic (I can’t help but love him a little for that :P). He and some other critics, all working for Cahiers du Cinéma, were fed up with the stuffy academicism that had taken over French film. They wanted to make movies that people could connect to; so the audience could feel that the film spoke to their problems and sensibilities. They decided to make these movies themselves. These films are fun, yet poignant; they are made by movie lovers, for movie lovers.

Their movement, titled the French New Wave, was thrust into the spotlight by this little film, The 400 Blows. This film centers around a young boy, Antoine Doinel, played fantastically by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Attending a strict all-boys school in Paris, he doesn’t fit the mold of a well-behaved young man. He is too creative, too curious, and much too mischievous. His father is largely ineffectual. His mother is absent and doesn’t care about him care unless it suits her interests. Throughout the film, he continually gets into trouble and he has no one to turn to. 

The 400 Blows is filmed in a documentary style on the streets of Paris. The film is actually a semi-autobiographical account of Truffaut’s childhood (poor guy!), and it feels very true to life. The actors performances are impressive, even more so if you consider that they were not given a script to memorize. This is one of the reasons that the movie feels so believable.  The actors had to react as they would in life to the situations they were placed in. Truffaut used this to his advantage, while most directors previously had shied away from giving their performers that much freedom.

Now, as you have probably already inferred, I really liked this movie. It’s funny in parts, but it is truly tragic throughout the narrative. Do not watch this if you are looking for a carefree, happy-go-lucky time. This poor boy goes through a lot, but at no point does it feel exploitative, like one of those movies that the only purpose they serve is to leave you in tears by the ending. It just feels honest. Little boys like this were all over Paris, Truffaut himself was one of them. These melancholic moments are interspersed with silly gags and clever pranks played by Antoine and his friends, and this is what really helps make the movie more than just a melodrama. This film does not preach to you, which I really love (I despise preachy films). I feel like it escapes from that after-school special/PSA feel that most movies about troubled youth take. The children in the movie feel like real kids, not vague sterotypes designed to teach us a lesson.

Extras: I watched the Criterion Blu-Ray release of the film. They did a great job with it. The menu is beautiful and easy navigable. It comes with some nice extras. There are some good interviews with Truffaut and Léaud and they are worth a look. These include Léaud’s adorable audition tape!

How to watch: In the original French with subtitles. The Criterion DVD/Blu-ray doesn’t even have the option for English dub, which is one of the reasons I’m a bit obsessed with Criterion.

Who to watch with: Kids could definitely watch this movie. There is nothing inappropriate. Honestly, you could watch this with anyone. Male, female, whatever I don’t think anyone could resist this.

Final Verdict: Please watch! Believe me you will have a great time. Certain moments (I won’t spoil them for you :P) will stick with you long after the credits roll. If anything just watch it to see Léaud. He is too good and too adorable.